The Crimson Tide basketball team followed an all-too-familiar pattern in losing yet another close game on Saturday, falling 76-73 to the Ole Miss Rebels after building a late lead. Roll 'Bama Roll reacts with some initial impressions...
- It happened again. We led by 11 points early in the second half--our 8th time in 14 SEC games to build a double-digit lead in the second half, and our 5th time to lose one of those games. The game came down to the final shot at the buzzer--our fourth time in 14 SEC games when the game was in doubt at the buzzer, and we've now lost all four. I'm almost glad we have nothing left to play for, otherwise this one would have hurt just as much as the others.
- The loss drops us to 14-14 overall and 4-10 in SEC play, ensuring that no matter what happens, we will have our worst conference record in at least a decade. We are now completely eliminated from postseason play barring a surprise run to the SEC tournament title next week in Nashville. We are guaranteed to finish no better than 4th, and no worse than 5th, in the SEC West, depending on whether we can catch Auburn, who is now one game ahead of us in the standings. The 5th seed in the SEC tournament means we would catch either Florida or Tennessee in the opener but would be placed on the opposite side of Kentucky, while the 4th seed would match us with South Carolina or Georgia in the opener but then feed us right into Kentucky should we advance.
- Despite the fact that we technically lost another double-digit lead, this really wasn't a case of us wearing out down the stretch. The big lead was gone in a matter of about three minutes when Ole Miss went on a 12-0 run, so it was a new game over the last 12 minutes, and in that stretch we built the lead back up to five with less than three minutes to go. Again, I don't think we really wore down so much as Ole Miss just made plays out of our control in those final three minutes. In that span, the Rebels put up a total of six shot attempts, which I will list in order: (1) a contested 12-foot fade-away runner by their power forward, (2) a contested fade-away 3-pointer from deep behind the arc as the shot clock expired, (3) a long jumper by their power forward, (4) a contested 3-pointer by a 28% shooter, and (5&6) two free throws in a very tense pressure-packed moment. They didn't miss a single one of those six attempts in the final three minutes.
Read below the jump for more analysis of the game and individual performers...
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- The big news of the day individually was the suspension of starting guard Senario Hillman. Grant only said that the suspension was "basketball-related" and was due to "a poor choice" on Hillman's part. Grant went on to say that Hillman may or may not return for the next game at South Carolina. Those are all the facts I have been able to come across. A poor, basketball-related choice would seem to indicate something Hillman did (or didn't do) at a team event, practice, or workout in between the loss to MSU on Wednesday and the loss to Ole Miss on Saturday that crossed a line with Coach Grant. I have no idea what he might have done, so anything further would be pure speculation. Hillman was dressed out and on the bench but never took off his warmups. As Bama's top perimeter defender, his presence was sorely missed and was no doubt partially responsible for the Tide giving up the most points it has in 14 SEC games.
- Filling in for a large portion of Hillman's minutes was junior guard Charvez Davis. Davis appeared to have finally shaken off the effects of his minor knee injury that has limited his minutes a great deal over the last month or so of the season. He was much more active than we've seen him at any time since before his injury, contributing significantly for the first time since the injury on both defense and in transition. Of course, he stole the headlines for his career-high 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc. Really though, his shooting is nothing new; this is simply the first game in a very long while where he's been healthy enough to be involved fully in a game and we can see how badly we've missed his contributions over these last several weeks. If he can stay healthy, Davis will be a key role player for us next season.
- For the second straight game, senior guard Mikhail Torrance exploded offensively in the opening minutes of the game. His 3-point shooting has really improved over the course of the season, which has actually improved our offensive production overall the last several games, even though the results haven't shown it. Torrance had 11 points in the first ten minutes on 3-of-4 shooting from the arc, but like he did against MSU, his production slowed as the game went on, even though he still finished tied with Davis for a team-high 19 points. I think a big factor for Torrance is his endurance. The coaching staff has recognized this, especially after his late-game meltdowns in the early portion of the SEC schedule when he was playing 35+ minutes, and has tried several different tactics to keep him fresh, like starting him on the bench and taking him out just before media timeouts. We are going to miss him terribly next year, how much so will depend on just how ready our two guard signees* are to replace his penetration and perimeter scoring abilities.
- Freshman point guard Ben Eblen saw a return to the floor in relief of Torrance, largely just a result of a lack of warm bodies with Hillman missing from the lineup. His offensive skills are limited to the point where he doesn't even pretend to try and score, but he did contribute one assist and one steal. However he also gave up a very costly turnover that led directly to an Ole Miss basket and he somehow racked up three fouls in only six minutes of action. Senior guard Anthony Brock had a very quiet day offensively despite playing almost the entire game (34 minutes). He did an excellent job defensively on Ole Miss leading scorer Warren when we were in man defense, a continuing trend in which the coaching staff has entrusted him with defending the opponents' point guards for large stretches.
- Freshman Tony Mitchell continues to start but hasn't been playing as much or producing as much as he was just a few weeks ago. His offense has disappeared after a stretch in the middle of SEC play in which he looked poised to become a breakout player for us down the stretch this season. Mitchell did not start in the first three SEC games as he was coming back from a bout with mono, but he has started all 11 games since. Here are his averages for his first seven starts: 31 minutes per game (never less than 28), 10 points per game, 3 three-point attempts per game (hitting an incredible 48%), all while leading the team in rebounds. His most impressive outing of the stretch was probably the last of the seven games, at Kentucky, but immediately following that game his minutes and stats have inexplicably dropped off a cliff. The next three games he never played more than 19 minutes, averaged 4 points per game, and only attempted 4 threes combined (hitting none). He did see some increased minutes against Ole Miss on Saturday, but that was likely a simple function of him helping to fill in for Hillman's lost minutes. He led the team in rebounding on the day with 8, and chipped in 6 points, his most since seeing his minutes drop off the last four games. Mitchell is very close to Green to being our best rebounder (Mitchell grabs 0.24 rebounds per minute while Green grabs 0.26) and Mitchell was one of our most productive offensive players for a long stretch, not to mention the best three-point shooter. I have no idea why his minutes have dropped off so suddenly. Defensively, the team an average of 61 points during the seven-game stretch when Mitchell was playing 31 minutes each game, but has allowed an average of 73 points the last four games, when Mitchell has been playing less, despite playing weaker competition. Perhaps Mitchell is nursing a minor injury like Charvez Davis was for a while, but if so it has not been made public. Either way, Mitchell will be a cornerstone of our team in the coming years, so we need him back producing very soon.
JaMychal Green was pretty productive on Saturday considering Ole Miss sold out completely to double-team him at every turn. He did a nice job getting to the free throw line and was again fairly productive all-around given the way Ole Miss played him, contributing 14 points and 7 rebounds. I've mentioned the mental things that Green needs to focus on to make that next step to be a truly elite and feared SEC forward (and potentially the big next step after that), but what he really needs is a partner down low who can prevent teams from doing what Ole Miss did to him.* Speaking of help down low, Justin Knox helped to make Ole Miss pay a pretty heavy price for double-teaming Green by pouring in 12 points and snagging 5 rebounds (including 3 offensive boards). Don't get me wrong, I'm totally sold on Chris Hines being a better all-around player and especially athlete, but no one can argue that Knox isn't the more productive of the two on the offensive end either. Speaking of Hines, he had a big day on the boards with 7 rebounds while contributing 2 assists and no turnovers, although he failed to score and only attempted two shots.
- In conclusion, I have noticed a definite change in strategy by the coaching staff over the last four games. I mentioned it in detail in the long Tony Mitchell paragraph above, but it deserves more discussion as it relates to the team overall. The coaching staff, on the heels of four straight losses (@Auburn, Florida, @Ole Miss, @Kentucky), began to shuffle things around. They began to start Torrance on the bench and reduce his minutes overall. They heavily reduced Mitchell's minutes. They inserted Brock into the starting lineup and significantly increased his minutes. They began to press much less. They began to rely more heavily on a zone defense (although to be fair this began in the Kentucky game). I believe that all of this was a noble and good-faith attempt by the staff to shake things up and try to address some of the areas in which we had been exposed during that four-game losing streak to try and get things turned around in time to snag an NIT bid. They wanted to increase our scoring ability and reduce the effects of fatigue on the team in the closing minutes. However, in doing so I believe that these changes have hurt more than helped. This should have become evident in the first half of the Arkansas game, but Arkansas allowed us to come back as they missed some shots down the stretch. During these last four games I've seen a noticeable drop in our defensive intensity and playmaking, and the scoring numbers certainly back that up (61 points allowed through the first ten games, 73 over the last four). I liked what I saw during those first ten games even though we didn't get it done offensively, and I've been disappointed that we haven't been able to frustrate teams defensively these last four games. If we are going to go down, I'd rather see us go down playing some incredible defense they way we did earlier in the SEC season, rather than see us just trying to outscore people like we have the last few games. It's pretty apparent that scoring more points with this group of players isn't going to pay big dividends now, but laying that foundation for defensive intensity is something we can build on heading into future seasons. That's just my opinion though. Roll Tide.
*I included two asterisks above related to recruiting. I will include some full-length recruiting articles after the season mercifully comes to an end here in two weeks, but there are a couple of quick things fans should know about now. First, of our two signees, combo guard Charles Hankerson is in the clear in terms of qualifying, and in fact is considered a top student, but rumors have it that point guard Trevor Releford may be in danger of failing to qualify. Now, these are just rumors as I've yet to find anything officially reported on it, but to say that this is a monumental concern would be an understatement. Releford is about as likely to start next year as JaMychal Green, and in my opinion point guard will be our biggest question mark for next year. You never like to say that a freshman who has never set foot on campus will start, but when you are literally the only point guard on the roster, it makes it easier to make such a statement (no disrespect to Ben Eblen). Second, in regard to finding a suitable partner for Green down low, we are hot on the trail of the most sought-after JuCo prospect in the nation, Recardo Ratliffe, a 6'9" power forward, who could come in immediately and be an impact player in the post at the SEC level. We are up against some stiff competition for him from several major schools, but hopefully Coach Grant and the promise of early playing time can send him our way. Keep an eye on both of these developments in the coming months, and again, look for some in-depth basketball recruiting coverage after the season.